Heat's on Houllier for a win

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 2003, 12:00am

Liverpool are 11th after three successive league defeats and their fans will be restless after a poor start at Anfield

Crisis clubs Liverpool and Leeds get this weekend's live action from the English Premiership under way, with Reds manager Gerard Houllier probably under more pressure than rival boss Peter Reid to get a win.

Liverpool languish in 11th place after three league defeats in a row and the home fans will be frustrated after a particularly poor start at Anfield (their only win in four Premiership home games was 2-1 over Leicester).

Liverpool's mediocre form is only relative, however, especially in the context of tonight's game. Despite their slump since last autumn, Liverpool have accumulated 54 points over their last 38 league games, which would be good enough for seventh or eighth place in a normal season. Although that is not good enough by their high standards, it is still way above Leeds' recent form (42 points in the same period, which makes them relegation material).

Leeds have conceded 12 goals in four away games (only Bolton have let in more) and their sole win, 3-2 at Middlesbrough, could easily have been reversed. Their leaky defence, coupled with the fact that Liverpool are creating plenty of goal-scoring opportunities, suggests the home team should get the confidence-boosting win they need. Even without Michael Owen, Liverpool would be fancied, if not with maximum confidence at short odds.

Chelsea and Manchester United feature in the televised action later tonight but, despite good wins in the Champions League in midweek, they are unlikely to have things all their own way against tricky visitors. Fifth-placed Manchester City go to Stamford Bridge and Fulham, in sixth place, are at Old Trafford.

Both City and Fulham appear to be in those positions on merit. Fulham's form under Chris Coleman has seen them accumulate 25 points in 14 games since April, comfortably making them a top-eight side, while Manchester City have taken 42 points from double that number of matches since the halfway point of last season (again good enough to be challenging for Europe).

Crucially, when considering tonight's games, both City and Fulham are dangerous on the counter-attack and capable of scoring against any defence (both are averaging two goals per away game this season). Chelsea and Manchester United should win, of course, but backing them at short odds seems overloaded with risks. City, especially, look a fair bet at a long price, given Chelsea's tendency to concede the first goal.

Improving Newcastle also face difficult visitors in Portsmouth (who have shown their quality with four points from two games so far against the big five). Newcastle's start (three draws and two defeats) was even worse than last season's (when they had one point more from the first five games), but they have picked up five wins and two draws in their last eight matches in all competitions. That mirrors last season's improvement from the same stage (from late September to Christmas, they won eight league games and lost only three away to Arsenal, Manchester United and Blackburn) and so they have to be fancied now they are on a roll.

The strong home form of Aston Villa and Bolton has been pointed out before, but it is worth reiterating as both have winnable home matches tonight. Despite their lowly positions, the pair are the only teams outside the top four still unbeaten at home this season, though their good runs stretch back much further.

Villa should take care of Everton, who have become a very poor away side (only two wins in their last 15) and looked low on confidence and ideas in their home 0-0 with Southampton last week. Bolton have a trickier task against fourth-placed Birmingham but must have a good chance of stretching their unbeaten home run in the league to 12 games, given that the visitors are such a low-scoring team (only three goals away this season, two from penalties).

Tonight's other Premiership matches, Southampton v Blackburn and Wolves v Leicester, look tough to call. Both might end in low-scoring draws, though Blackburn's away form (only one defeat in four and seven goals scored) suggests they could get more at goal-shy Southampton despite their recent slump. Blackburn have had three wins and a draw against Southampton since returning to the Premiership and they represent some value on a list where it is difficult to find a standout away bet.

Arsenal might fit the bill when they go to Charlton in tomorrow's early TV game. Top of the Premiership but bottom of their Champions League group, Arsenal are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team in the two big competitions but should maintain their record as the only unbeaten away side in England's top flight. Charlton have upset Arsenal a couple of times in recent years but have lost this fixture 3-0 for the past two seasons and a similar result looks likely tomorrow.

Spurs host Middlesbrough in tomorrow's second live game and it is hard to bet against the home side after three wins and a draw under caretaker boss David Pleat. Boro are playing better than their position suggests and dominated last weeks 1-0 home defeat by Newcastle, but their strikers have been woeful and it is hard to make a case for backing them despite an outstanding record against Spurs.

Around Europe, as in England, there are several interesting matches involving established top teams against surprise high-fliers. Real Madrid host fifth-placed Racing Santander in tonight's live game from the Spanish Primera Liga and, while the champions are hard to oppose in the Bernabeu, they are not a stone-cold certainty against a team unbeaten in four away games.

Tonight's live German game sees seventh-placed Wolfsburg travel to Stuttgart, the young team who head Manchester United's Champions League group and are challenging again at the top of the Bundesliga. Wolfsburg have started well but their away form remains mediocre and they are unlikely to stop Stuttgart, who have conceded only one goal in domestic competition.

A more interesting bet is sixth-placed Bochum at home to Borussia Dortmund, who are third despite an indifferent away record. Bochum merit favouritism based on their home form in 2003 (two defeats in 13 and, apart from Bayern Munich, the only team to have beaten visiting Stuttgart in the past six months).

Unfortunately that game is not on TV, but there are plenty of other fascinating live clashes over the weekend, particularly Deportivo v Valencia tonight and Inter Milan v Roma tomorrow. AC Milan and Real Sociedad bid to bounce back from Champions League defeats, also tomorrow, while Barcelona go to Mallorca hoping to revive their disappointing season. All those games are featured in detail inside.

There is a busy midweek programme, too, with another round of La Liga matches in Spain and the third round of the Carling Cup in England, when the big teams enter the competition. It is difficult to make firm predictions before seeing the weekend's results and, in the case of the Carling Cup, the team line-ups. The big clubs often field under-strength sides in this competition, especially in the early rounds, and Manchester United may not repeat last weeks 1-0 win at Leeds, again live on TV.

Best homes: Aston Villa (v Everton), Newcastle (v Portsmouth), Deportivo (v Valencia), Spurs (v Middlesbrough), Bochum v Dortmund.

Best aways: Manchester City, Blackburn, Arsenal.

High goals: Freiburg v Werder Bremen, Manchester United v Fulham, Newcastle v Portsmouth.

Low goals: Wolves v Leicester, Southampton v Blackburn, Sampdoria v AC Milan.